Politics, Religion

Playing with fire

Cliff Singer at Jewish Socialist takes on Aish HaTorah:

Aish differs from traditional Haredi groups in three ways. Firstly, its outreach work, which aims to convert secular Jews to Orthodoxy, is its overriding priority, not merely a spin-off. Orthodox converts – or ba’alei teshuvah (those who have repented) – make up most of its membership, and its yeshiva programs combine traditional Talmudic studies with intensive training in outreach and leadership skills.
Secondly, it has hitched its social conservatism to an aggressively neoconservative stance on the Middle East. Its donors and well-wishers may include liberals and conservatives, but the political voices on its website extend from the right to the far right: Benjamin Netanyahu, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Alan Dershowitz, Dore Gold, Natan Sharansky, Melanie Phillips and Charles Krauthammer.
Third, it advocates a ‘one step at a time’ approach to Judaism, allowing members to develop their observance at their own pace. For Aish, this is testimony to its openness and tolerance, and it has certainly succeeded in attracting those who would be otherwise repelled by the ‘black hat brigade’. But critics say Aish uses this approach to hide its true aims from prospective recruits. Aish’s outreach work is focused mainly on the under-30s, who it attracts with slick advertising and hip graphics that give little hint of its ultra-Orthodox agenda. Some parents have accused it of having a cult-like influence on their children.
How has Aish overcome such controversy to become a multi-million dollar operation, occupying a prominent place in Jewish life?

Full story.

45 thoughts on “Playing with fire

  1. The Jewish community will expand its tent and declare something legitimate when they shouldn’t because a group,
    1) Promotes in-marriage
    2) Is pro-Israel. We sold our soul for Zionism a long time ago.

  2. I think Aish does great stuff. I’ve attended their yeshiva in Israel and some of their programs in Toronto. Good folks…smart people. And yes, their marketing is slick. Something Reform/Conservative might wanna bone up on.
    A cult? Give me a break. The kids who end up all black hat and shuckeling would’ve ended up in an Ashram or a Scientology center. Such bullshit in this article. The quick ba’alei teshuvah’s have more to do with psychological issues than clandesine marketing ones.
    Final note…I know two liberal shuls (one in Toronto and the other in Vancouver) where they force women to cover their heads. A friend of mine was asked to leave the shul because she refused to put on a kippah.

  3. Streimel wrote,
    The kids who end up all black hat and shuckeling would’ve ended up in an Ashram or a Scientology center.
    Not true. These charedi places are much more attractive to normal, middle class Jews in ways that other extreme groups and cults are not.

  4. there is some interesting info in the article (one shekel for land overlooking the kotel plaza?! how’d they get that strongly on the israeli gov’t’s good side?), but most of it I’d heard before.
    the quotes from upset parents were weak (I mean, keeping kosher is not exactly proof of brainashing), but when I clicked on the linked footnote, I found a fairly disturbing story. so it seems the quotes were poorly chosen.

  5. Not true. These charedi places are much more attractive to normal, middle class Jews in ways that other extreme groups and cults are not.
    Ya, the truth sometimes has that kind of effect on people.

  6. “Aish’s outreach work is focused mainly on the under-30s, who it attracts with slick advertising and hip graphics that give little hint of its ultra-Orthodox agenda.”
    That’s right. Because as an under-30 male, I’m certainly swayed by slick advertising and hip graphics. Sometimes I wish I only responded to substance, but then I’ll see something shiny.

  7. DK…
    I’ve been to Aish. I’m not sure what “half-truths” you’re refering to…at least with respect to the incredible brain-washing power they’d have over “middle-class” kids. All in all, the quick BT types were vessels waiting to be filled. And if it wasn’t Aish, it’d be drugs. And if not drugs, it’d by Ayn Rand…or Marx…or some other ‘ism.
    BTW…I’m not a black hatter and my theology rests with the Conservative Movement. My above comments have to do with my academic/professional experience, that being over 13 yrs of clinical work with adolescents/young adults.

  8. Aish won this one fair-and-square. They understand capitalism; the United Synagogue still practices command-and-control economics. Aish advertises for “entrepreneurial rabbis”; JTS loses its innovative (and entrepreneurial) head of Distance Learning to a bureaucratic power-grab.
    But not to worry: In another generation or two Aish will be smug and complacent, and their children will outrage their parents by frequenting the Mobeius Mitzva Minivans that frequent downtown Lakewood….

  9. I don’t agree with a lot of the viewpoints that Aish puts forth esp. when it comes to its tendency (perhaps an understatement) towards Zionism, particularly towards right-wing Zionism, however, if they’re getting Jews interested in studying Torah, I surely give them mad props for that.
    I kinda think the claims that they “hide” their “fundamentalism” (a dirty word ppl like to use for people with really strong beliefs that doesn’t really mean much) are pretty exagerrated. I think they’re goal of trying to get people to become frum is pretty obvious from their website, but maybe that’s just me. Calling it an “agenda” like its some kind of secret conspiracy that they want people to adhere to Torah in a very strict manner, to me, just seems a little crazy.

  10. I guess there is always going to be something to complain about. If the Jewish community was growing instead of shrinking I guess we would see an article here about the dangers of overpopulating the earth.

  11. Aish is the largest recruiting organization for quiescent Jewish fundamentalism.
    Additionally, they use tactics that are misleading and highly questionable, such as their Bible Codes, which is statistically meaningless, and they know it, and use it anyway.
    They take direct orders from “daas Torah,” as all quiescent fundamentalist Jews do. This is why all reference to evolution (in terms of accepting evolution) is gone from their site. “daas Torah” (R. Eliashev, currently) has spoken. Scientific method has been rejected.
    When you reject scientific method over evolution, you are a fundamentalist.
    Even if a guy like Streimel had three wonderful months there one summer.
    You can be laid back — no pressure, real chill — and still be advocating fundamentalism.
    As Jews, we have to accept that our fundamentalist wing is growing every day.
    Once again, I reject the idea that everyone drawn to these places are natural degenerates as Streimel asserts.

  12. There is a legitimate concern we should have with Aish — the way in which the Aish web-site misrepresents much of Jewish history and portrays early Reformers as nothing more than German nationalists (there is a heavy sub-text here, ,methinks).
    From the Aish site:
    The Reform service had a choir, robes, and an organ; it was conducted in German with German songs and German prayers in a deliberate attempt to emphasize nationalistic loyalty and identity.
    Jewishly, however, this was quite a departure. Up until then, Jews prayed in Hebrew, reciting the prayers composed by the Men of the Great Assembly and by the Sanhedrin some two thousand years earlier. Jews never played musical instruments during Shabbat services, and certainly not an organ which was an instrument common to Christian churches, as was the choir and the robes.
    I think that Jewschool should hold a contest to see how many holes folks can find in these choice paragraphs. I for one will point out that my bar mitzvah tutor, Max Weissbaum, who was raised in the Orthodox community in Hamburg sang in the choir and wore a robe. Choirs wore robes – Orthodox and all others. He also wore a tallis before he was a Bar Mitzvah (that was done back then in parts of the Orthodox world) And there were prominent Orthodox rabbis who gave divrei Torah in German!
    As for all prayers being in Hebrew — hello? Aramaic???? and two thousand years old? a tiny fraction of the tefillot were around back then. And musical instruments never played on shabbat? They were played by the Levites in the temple!
    I am not sure who wrote this historical hodge-podge of half-truths, but Aish should think twice about promoting such light-weight scholarship as Jewish history.

  13. I think Daniel is on to something! How about a “How many lies and half-truths can you find on aish.com?!!! Daniel, awesome!

  14. Aish, like any other place, is an admixture of good and bad. In this, though, the bad is very bad – the idea that Aish will do almost anything, including lie, to get another “convert.” This whole Judaism thing is based on a mesora which itself is based on truth. The idea is you can believe what your father tells you because he won’t lie to you. Aish pushes Torah codes, well after they’ve been shown to be tainted, on newbies who have no background to safely deal with the issue. And it does other similarly dishonest and unethical things every day, intentionally, to win “converts.”, Of course, surrounded by that are really good Torah classes on halakha, gemara, etc., a great student-to-teacher ratio, and dozens of other good things, including many very nice people.

  15. I want to take issue with the comment that all fundamentalism means is “a dirty word ppl like to use for people with really strong beliefs”.
    It’s not just about strong beliefs, it’s about the conviction that your beliefs are the only right beliefs; that they represent the singular objective way of looking at the world. Strong beliefs aren’t a problem, black and white thinking that leaves no room for other points of view (whether they’re only slightly different from your own or radically different) is.

  16. The article also spoke a lot about the right wing propoganda fed to the Hasbara Fellowship participants…and how they aren’t allowed even a glimpse at the other side.
    I attended the Hasbara Fellowship program this summer and as a graduate of time studying at BGU, an AIAC advocacy program, an Israel programs center leadership mission, and birthright, I can tell you without reservation that Hasbara was unmathced by any in their attempt to show both sides and let us make our own opinions.
    We heard from Leaders in the Kadima Party, MOshe Dayans daughter (who considers Arafat a friend) women in black (or whatever they’re called) palestinian reporters and citizens who currently work for Fatah, and Beduins. among others NEVER, ON ANY TRIP OR EDUCATIONAL have I been allowed even a glimp at so many sides of the truth.
    Aish does some sketchy things (I’ve been to the bible code seminar) but they also do a lot of amazing things (more shabbat dinners than I can count, the discovery seminar (take what you wish from it) and the fellowships.
    It’;s about time we excuse the bad and appreciate the good!

  17. I think it is important to understand that even within the ‘black hat’ or ‘fundamentalist’ Jewish worlds, Aish is seen as a very questionable enterprise. Most of the opinions I have heard regarding it recognize the lack of subtelty and dishonesty involved and disapprove, but they take the fatalist position that I have heard on even this board, and say, “well, if they’re getting kids to learn Torah and keep Shabbos, what can you do.”
    As well, it should be understood that since the beginning Aish was never a mainstream institution. It’s founder, R’ Noach Weinberg, is notoriously stubborn and difficult to work with, as has been said about most of his family members. He tried to start a number of different yeshivas, each time with other, respected educators, and each time, the yeshiva fell apart, or he had to leave, as in the case of Ohr Samayach, which was mentioned in the article. Only when he started Aish, all by himself, as a fringe group was it able to succeed.
    I should post a disclaimer here. I have never researched anythign I jsut said, this is all just the stnadard ‘hock’ or gossip that I have picked up around the Yeshiva world. My purpose here is less to report the truth, as much as to display the perception of the institute within the Yeshiva world.
    With that noted, perhaps by virtue of its success, not just in recruitment, but in its ability to churn out Rabis who are quickly becoming the next generations mainstream educators and spiritual leaders. Aish’s special mix of superficial religious experience, dogma, and neo-conservative politics is growing more and more prominent, and these ideas threaten to further damage the Orthodox world.

  18. Can anyone post a link, to a pseudo-credible source, debunking Aish tactics i.e. Bible Codes, as flat out lies?

  19. Shtreimel,
    I’m not interested in getting into the debate on the merits of codes because I’m not a scientist so I can’t argue it, but I’m of the opinion that anything — including and especially atheism — can be proven with enough advanced mathematics.
    If I was gonna follow a text because of its internal harmony, I’d believe Shakespeare was/is the Messiah.
    But all you have to do is google “torah codes” + “nonsense” to get a bunch of debunking articles, including this one.

  20. daniel brenner is being disengenuous. Reform Judaism was definitely motivated by a desire to fit in more with the overall (German) community. The robes worn by Reform Rabbis were patterned after those worn by Protestant ministers. The liturgy removed references to Israel so as to avoid charges of dual loyalties. Reform Judaism was and is by definition a response to the challenges brought up as a result of emancipation in Europe. Don’t try to pretend otherwise and get all smug and self-righteous.
    As for Aish, well… Krucoff was there for three weeks and look at what a raving fundamentalist lunatic he is now. Also, David Koresh, who wasn’t remotely Jewish, never attended Aish.

  21. My fiancés father is a university math professor. He claims the Codes are bunk science. But My point is that there are some folks on Jewschool who claim Aish willingly and purposely lying to Jews to coax them into a black hat. These are serious charges, and they’re unfounded.
    With respect to DK’s comment:
    “Once again, I reject the idea that everyone drawn to these places are natural degenerates as Streimel asserts.”
    DK…it was your mind that twisted my words into “natural degenerates”. Since I consider myself to have gone through, and continue to do so, a BT’ish experience, I hold high regard for “seekers”. The psychological (or according to Steinsaltz theological – See his book Tshuvah) reasons behind the BT phenomenon are well founded. We’re all wounded healers…some more than others.

  22. CK,
    Can you stop pretending the problems with Aish are for people who are there for 3 weeks because their girlfriend is religious? Do you really think we are talking about the people there for a few weeks?
    And do you not see that these places are fundamentalist to the core? Or do you think they took off all references to evolution because of bandwidth considerations? daas Torah hath spoken. No dinosaurs. Just dinosaur bones! Let’s talk about the mesorah, okay? Do not disobey R. Eliashev , melech HaB’nai Torah.
    In the off-chance that Aish is knowingly using a “codes” that is statistically meaningless in order to “amke epople frum” and has known that these codes are meaningless for a long time, would you agree that these are deceptive tactics and a sign of who they are at their core? Would you agree that shows the general Jewish community needs to take a longer, more critical look at Aish?

  23. DK,
    I went to a bible code seminar. The presenter with whom I had lunch told me and the assembled that the codes are merely interesting and that Judaism is and remains a faith. To demonstrate he generated some code-like stuff in English. He at all times downplayed the significance of the codes. A lovely lunch was served.
    The way you guys throw that “fundamentalist” epithet around leads me to ask, are there any religious Orthodox Jews you and the Jewish Socialist don’t consider fundamentalist? You need to take a look at your attitudes and think about just how objective they really are.

  24. DK…some of my secular friends think Judaism, at it’s core, is meaningless, superstitious and they believe that most religious folks know this, but due to self-interest, spread Mosaic law nonetheless. They believe our choseness concept is racist and elitist and causes harm to ourselves and others.
    Aish believes that Codes provide one entry point for certain Jews to comprehend the power of Torah. For some this may be weak science. However my friends would claim the whole enterprise is a crutch for weak minded, existentially weak people…like you and I.

  25. CK,
    How many times have I defended the Modern Orthodox against charges of “fundamentalism?” How many on your blog alone, CK? Would you like links?
    You are as bad as the Religious Left in your refusal to distinguish between traditional, noramtive Judaism (aka Modern Orthodox) and charedi outside of your own life, which is clearly not charedi. Go figure.
    And glad your presenter knows he is a charlatan. Would you like lunch with a 3 card monte street hustler as well? I can arrange that for you, cause I’m connected like that. If he confides in you, then its okay, right?
    Definitely an entry point. A bogus one. Tragically, the ends justifies the means for these guys, doesn’t it?

  26. I have to agree with DK on this one. As far as I can tell the Codes are bogus (even before we get to the technical aspects, the fact that the spelling and formulation of the “found” words is at the discretion of the finder, and the fact that the assumptions of the Codes are based on the notion that today’s Torah is the letter-perfect original, are cause for suspicion). The Aish people either know this or should know this. There is no excuse for lying to people. Especially when the products they sell (particularly if we view the product as “greater observance and more knowledge” rather than “strictly Chareidi lifestyle”) can be made appealing in perfectly honest ways. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out the moral vacuum, pointlessness and coldness of pure secularism, or pointing to a tradition that ‘s produced so many excellent people, and kept so many people so consistently above the minimum decency level, for so many centuries. Not to mention the kugel.
    At the same time, Aish obviously does a lot of good things. And it’s not the place of some Jewish socialist to bash them. Anyone still supporting discredited economic theories which have created so much human misery is not in the best position to criticize people whose nonsense at least has gotten good results.
    I still object to DK’s excluding chareidim from normative Judaism. The basic sources, as far as I can tell, support both the Chareidi and Modern Orthodox views. However, the facts as we know them today call for choosing the Modern Orthodox approach. So I would say the Chareidim are wrong (and I’m by no means going soft on them when I say that), but not outside normative Judaism. And I’m grateful to the tradition for containing the multiplicity of viewpoints that make choosing possible.
    Also, I think that using the term “fundamentalist” is unhelpful. Aside from the fact that the word is an import from other religions, which have their own issues, “fundamentalist” has too many meanings to be used precisely here. Does it mean “adhering to the real or imagined original version of the religion”? “Fanatical adherence with disregard to facts/reality”? “Refusal to consider other viewpoints” (not that secularists are so great with that, either)? “Reading texts literally, no matter what”? It’s really the latter definition we’re talking about, so maybe we should say “literalist” rather than “fundamentalist”.

  27. DK…I’m assuming you subscribe to some of the God stuff. I have friends who’ll laugh in your face, call you a fool and provide you with stats and historical “proof” that your beliefs/practices cause more problems than they’re worth. They don’t differentiate b/w Codes and Torah Classes. They think the whole Sinai thing is a joke, and hence, any entry points into the joke is based on lies and fabrications.
    So in your little world, there’s huge differences between charedi and modern orthodox Judaism. To 93% of Jews, your as archaic and insane as Rabbi Weinberg.

  28. And by the way DK, unlike Aish, these “lies and fabrications” required our people to “return to Zion”. And according to many folks, the Sinai lie has led to the death and destruction of thousands of innocent people in the Middle East. All in all, Aish’s “lies” are quite peaceful compared to your own.

  29. Streimel,
    There are serious differences between what the MO claim and what Aish HaTorah claims. Aish is claiming things they know are not statistically meaningful as proofs of Judaism’s superiority to other faiths. In fact, as Sharya’s link will note, they are no more meaningful or interesting than what you can find with the same sequences in Moby Dick.
    And I am not demanding that anyone chuck scientific method in order to maintain a literal understanding of the Torah, am I?
    This isn’t just about belief or not belief. This is what you demand people suspend in order to believe, and if you justify lies and smoke and mirrors to get them there.

  30. CK,
    I was not writing about Reform Judaism – but about the half-truths in the Aish article that attempt to contrast Reform and Orthodox practice. Orthodox Jews sang in choirs and wore robes and preached in German. Do you not find it ironic when an Aish rabbi in an Armani suit and Kenneth Cole shoes tells you how important it is for Jews to reject the social practices of the outside world?

  31. Reform Judaism was and is by definition a response to the challenges brought up as a result of emancipation in Europe.
    So was (and is) Orthodox Judaism.
    (and Conservative, Recon, Renewal, et. al)

  32. Hahahaha! That kept me laughing all the way through! 🙂 Especially this part:
    “Many would applaud that, but not me. His life is ruled purely by the Torah. He will not eat in my house and adheres to every single mitzvah.'”
    On no! EVERY mitzvah. Every SINGLE ONE! Oh gosh! Now that’s scary. Hahahahahahahahahaha! Thanks for posting this.

  33. ephraim said: “I want to take issue with the comment that all fundamentalism means is “a dirty word ppl like to use for people with really strong beliefs”.
    It’s not just about strong beliefs, it’s about the conviction that your beliefs are the only right beliefs; that they represent the singular objective way of looking at the world. Strong beliefs aren’t a problem, black and white thinking that leaves no room for other points of view (whether they’re only slightly different from your own or radically different) is. ”
    Strong beliefs equal=the idea that yours are the only right beliefs.
    After all, philosophically, in logicians terms, what are we saying when we say “I believe X”. What that say is “I assert that X is true.” If you assert that something is true, obviously, you automatically are asserting that anything to contradicts that is false. Otherwise, what the hell are beliefs? That’s not a very PC idea, because we like to skirt around saying things like “Torah is true” b/c some people might disagree so we say “I believe Torah is true” like its some kind of disclaimer but really, it’s just saying the same thing.
    For example, those of you who believe in evolution, naturally agree that any idea that conflicts with that is false OR you assert a series of other ideas that solve the contradiction (like Schroeder did with his very complicated explanation of how the worlds is billions of years old AND 5767 years old…you may disagree with his premises, but they do entail his conclusion).
    My point is that, in most logical frameworks, everything IS black and white. It’s either true or not true.

  34. well… the subtle distinction between saying “The Torah is true” and “I believe the Torah is true” is that the first statement can be argued with, and the second really can’t.

  35. also, its possible to think about religion in terms of meaning, rather than truth. I can say, its meaningful for me to understand all of creation as imbued with divinity. That I wake up and say “mod’e ani” because cultivating gratitude is important. I am not asserting that one thing is true or not true, I am just asserting that it is meaningful to me. This can be done will all theological propositions. Its a radical tweak, but in the face of global pluralism, I’m not sure there is any other viable approach. How ridiculous is it to say that the universal God, of the entire universe, has a special relationship with a few thousand folks gathered at the foot of a mountain? This doesnt mean that sinai is not meaningful as a concept for understand God’s will, as refracted through history and myth, but to assert that it is true or false is silly. Because ultimately, as a cultural production, judaism reflect the meanings of its practitioners, not transcendent truth.

  36. Ephraim,
    “Strong beliefs equal=the idea that yours are the only right beliefs.”
    Not true. But thinking that it is sort of shows how fundamentalists think….
    For example, I strongly believe that religious practice that informs your personal life and ethics is a good think. I believe it very very much. But I don’t dispute that making correct choices and having strong ethics can also be the result of completely irreligious belief systems.
    Basically, I’m willing to tolerate anyone but the intolerant. Those fuckers (from all faith groups) should be forced to share the same RV in hell.
    good shabbes and hag!

  37. Following reading these misleading statements I feel compelled to enlighten those who are spreading these pejorative and misleading half truths. Firstly, there is no secret about Koresh and Aish Hatorah. David Koresh spent several months in Jerusalem and was seen by many sitting in the Rova Square playing his guitar. He attended several Essentials classes which are basic Judaism classes offered to the public on a walk-in basis. He was never registered as a student. In the old city many individuals suffering from mental illness or Jerusalem syndrome will appear and loiter often arriving entering Aish Hatorah due to its nature as being a welcoming and open institution to Jews. Koresh was approached by a Aish Rabbi whose role is to speak to attendees and verify their Jewish affiliation or mental capacity spoke with Koresh. In a short conversation verified that he was neither Jewish nor mentally lucid which was very evident. Koresh was persuaded that Aish was not the place for him and he complied not to return to any classes. Koresh never spent more than several hours on Aish property.
    There you have it. That is the true story of Koresh’s “affiliation” with Aish Hatorah. He was never a student nor is there any secret of the events that occurred. Anyone who ever studied at Aish knows that Aish only caters to Jews and that non-Jews (as Koresh was obviously) are politely recommended to continue their spiritual journey elsewhere.
    The demonizing of Aish as a cult is completely false and pernicious. Inventing a relationship between David Koresh and Aish Hatorah is another tactic by those who inexplicably desire to damage the reputation of a institution that has done so much good for the Jewish people. There exist no secrets at Aish Hatorah. It is a transparent institution that has but one agenda, to bring Jews closer to their heritage. Furthermore, to provide an example of the degree of folly that this attempt to attack the credibility of Aish holds. I will demonstrate that the credibility of Virginia Tech as a renown university is not compromised by the attendance of that killer who attended it. Neither should Aish be held accountable for some yahoo walking in off the street and being asked to return to his guitar playing in the town square. As a first hand source, I hope that I have provided an adequate explanation of the facts I appeal to those who aspire to assail the reputation of Aish Hatorah that they do their research thoroughly as they will inevitably discover that there is nothing malicious about the it or its agenda.

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